Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Apocalypse Now, soccer style

"We must kill them. We must incinerate them. Pig after pig. Cow after cow. Village after village. Army after army. And they call me an assassin. What do you call it when the assassins accuse the assassin? They lie. They lie, and we have to be merciful, for those who lie. Those nabobs. I hate them. I do hate them."

- Marlon Brando as Colonel Walter E. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (Photo from Michael Heilemann)

"The European Union is an economic and political power with 27 members and 30 (soccer) associations — 15 per cent of the total of the FIFA family. Shall they make the rules for all the others? This is political interference. We should not be afraid to intervene."

- FIFA president Joseph S. "Sepp" Blatter

What's the connection between one of Hollywood's most interesting characters and the world soccer El Supremo? It's not as far-fetched as you might think. One is a power-crazed maniac willing to do anything to accomplish his nefarious goals; the other was famously played by Marlon Brando.

If you're one of the five people who have never seen Apocalypse Now, I highly recommend it: it's one of my all-time favorite movies. The special edition I have is particularly cool, as it features both the original movie and the 2001 "Redux" edition and has some very interesting commentary by director Francis Ford Coppola. I was watching it again the other day, and was struck by some of the similarities to the current world soccer situation, where Sepp Blatter's about to get into a no-holds-barred fight with the European Union over his proposed "6+5" rule. Like Kurtz, Blatter seems willing to do absolutely anything to accomplish his end goals, even when those goals contravene laws.

Apocalypse Now interlude:
"He's out there operating without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct. And he is still in the field commanding troops." - General Corman

The EU has made it absolutely clear that this proposal is blatantly illegal, and they've stopped behemoths before (just ask Bill Gates!). Consider these comments from EU spokesman John MacDonald (I assume he's no relation to McGlovin, McPrimeMinister, McPremier or McFootballer):

"'The 'six plus five rule' of FIFA is simply a rule that is based on grounds of nationality so that is incompatible with community law,' he told Sky Sports News.
'If they were to implement the 'six plus five rule' in Europe what would happen is any professional football player who feels aggrieved by the rule would be able to take the football club concerned to court and he would probably win the case.'"

That's a pretty firm stance, and the comments about anyone feeling aggrieved taking the club concerned to court should bring back enough Bosman memories to give any sane man room to ponder if he really wants to fight an extremely powerful multinational government that has shown before it isn't afraid to get involved in the business of football. MacDonald's comments were later further backed by the commissioner responsible for employment issues, who took an even stronger stance.

"'The European Commission is showing a red card to the 'six-plus-five' rule,' said European Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs Vladimir Spidla.
'This would be direct discrimination on the basis of nationality, which is unacceptable. It's a non-starter.
'Professional football players are workers, therefore the principle of non-discrimination and the right to free movement apply to them.
'If EU member states allowed the application of the six-plus-five rule they would be in breach of EU law and players who are discriminated against could take the member states to court - and they would win.'"

Apocalypse Now interlude:

"You smell that? Do you smell that? Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed, for twelve hours. When it was all over I walked up. We didn't find one of 'em, not one stinkin' dink body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like … victory." - Lieutenant-Colonel Bill Kilgore

At this point, most people would be bowing and scraping to the E.U. and sending them baskets of flowers and chocolate so that they might be allowed to escape with their hides. However, Blatter hasn't backed off one iota. From this Soccernet story:

"Blatter last week cleared the first major hurdle for his controversial rule when the FIFA congress voted 155-5 in favour of him pursuing the plan.
That vote in Sydney kept Blatter on a collision course with European lawmakers who say the rule, which would limit the number of foreign players who can start a match to five, would contravene its free movement of workers regulations.
Blatter, however, disagreed.
'I am sure it will be done... I am very confident about it,' he smiled after the vote. 'They are saying it is illegal. For what, for whom and when? And if there is a law ... you know a law can be amended or altered.'"

Doesn't that just sound slimy? You can picture Mr. Burns rubbing his fingers together while saying that. You think of a rogue soldier like Colonel Kurtz, doing whatever he deems necessary to achieve his end goals. If it's illegal, so what? I'm sure legalities don't mean all that much to someone who's already faced substantial allegations of corruption (I highly recommend Andrew Jennings' excellent book "Foul!" if you want more details).

Apocalypse Now interlude:

"Well, you see Willard... In this war, things get confused out there, power, ideals, the old morality, and practical military necessity. Out there with these natives it must be a temptation to be god. Because there's a conflict in every human heart between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil. The good does not always triumph. Sometimes the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. Every man has got a breaking point. You and I have. Walter Kurtz has reached his. And very obviously, he has gone insane."
- General Corman

The soccer version:

"Well, you see... in the murky world of international football, things get confused out there, power, ideals, money and practical political necessity. Out there, running one of the world's most powerful sporting organizations, it must be a temptation to be god. Because there's a conflict in every human heart, between the rational and the irrational, the idealistic and the pragmatic, the good of the game and the good of those running the game. The good of the game does not always triumph. Sometimes, the dark side of world finance and politics overcomes the better angels of our leaders' nature. Sometimes, the tremendous power they hold leads them to think they're above the law and can challenge the world's most powerful governments. Every man has got a breaking point. You and I have. Sepp Blatter has reached his. And very obviously, he has gone insane."

The biggest problems with this whole idea are that it isn't good for the game, it isn't good for the fans and it isn't good for the players. People can speak all they want about providing opportunities for local players, but the fact remains, those opportunities already exist. There currently aren't any leagues where the local players aren't good enough to compete. Consider England, often used as a case in point: except for Arsenal, I'm quite sure that every side regularly starts at least one English player (and Arsenal do as well from time to time). The Premier League attracts much of the best talent from around the world, but there are still plenty of local players in it. The situation in Italy, Spain and Germany is quite similar, except with even more local talent. If you listen to Blatter and his cronies, you'd think English players are being kept out of their own league, which simply isn't the case. The ones who are good enough to compete at that level have jobs: the ones who aren't have to go elsewhere.

When you start mandating a "6+5" rule, not only do you diminish opportunities for foreign players, you reduce the overall quality of the game and you spread the players far too thin. Do fans really want to see Didier Drogba and Solomon Kalou playing for some no-name team in the Ivory Coast league because English teams have used up their import quotas? They'd probably catch on somewhere, but this is the logical conclusion of these kind of rules. Is it good for the game to remove a creative foreigner like Patrice Evra solely on his country of origin and replace him with Nigel Walker from Brighton? My answers are no and no.

One thing that's helped with soccer's recent rise in popularity, especially in North America, is the prominence the English Premier League has gained. Fans want to see the best players in the world competing against each other on a more regular basis than just at the World Cup every four years. England doesn't have them all yet, but the English league is attracting more top-quality talent than ever, which in turn fuels massive TV revenues, which makes the clubs richer and allows them to buy even more expensive players. If you bring in 6+5 and reduce English soccer to a dull, plodding game with only a few top-level talents, say bye-bye to that popularity surge. This isn't intended as a slight on English players: their best players can compete with the best in the world and deserve the Premier League positions they have. Their middling talents, however, cannot compete with the best players in the world: that's why they are middle-of-the pack players. They're the ones who you'll see if 6+5 comes in, and they'll be responsible for the demise of entertaining top-level soccer as we know it.

Apocalypse Now
Jay "Chef" Hicks on Kurtz: "He's worse than crazy, he's evil!"

In my mind, this is a typical Blatter move, pandering to his support among African and Asian countries while hurting the Europeans (who voted for Lennart Johansson back in 1998). The thing is, though, it isn't even good for the players in those countries, as you're now taking away their chances to play on the big stages, gain valuable experience and earn a decent salary. It's also going to hurt those countries' national teams: competing against the best has a dramatic tendency to improve your own game, but their players won't be challenged if they're stuck in a crappy domestic league. The people it is good for are the elites running soccer in those countries. They don't care about the welfare of their players, and they probably aren't even too concerned with how their national teams do, but if their domestic leagues all of a sudden get an influx of stars who used to play in Europe but now have nowhere else to go, their revenues rise dramatically and their pockets get lined.

Apocalypse Now interlude:

Willard: They told me that you had gone totally insane, and that your methods were unsound.
Kurtz: Are my methods unsound?
Willard: I don't see any method at all, sir.

In the end, though, this is likely moot, as I can't see FIFA winning this if they go to court against the EU. Thus, it turns into another ill-advised publicity stunt by Blatter (remember the short shorts fiasco)? It's interesting that this comes at a time when the Swiss bribes trial (involving Blatter) is still going on. Blatter also managed to turn "6+5" into the big issue of the FIFA General Conference last weekend, nicely avoiding most of the discussions of the trial (the chair of the ethics committee, Lord Sebastian Coe, didn't even bother to turn up).

Perhaps the whole thing is merely an attention-grabbing ploy? In any case, we'll see if this comes to the ominous showdown I expect where Blatter finds out that he can't just follow Kurtz and act unilaterally, or if he decides to back off. Will the European judges have the guts to play Willard to Blatter's Kurtz? In any case, like Apocalypse Now, the journey just keeps getting more and more surreal.

P.S. Thanks to Mike for pointing me in the direction of the original Globe piece on this.

No comments:

Post a Comment